Conservative conversation

Inside Heritage’s foreign policy evolution

Heritage’s president tells JI that the influential think tank views Israel as a critical ally, alongside Taiwan, and that maintaining support for Israel requires stripping funding away from Ukraine

Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks alongside Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts during the foundation's 50th Anniversary Leadership Summit at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on April 21, 2023, in National Harbor, Md.

The Heritage Foundation was once a bastion of interventionist foreign policy in the Republican Party. But on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the influential conservative think tank has shifted toward what its president, Kevin Roberts, describes as a more “selective” U.S. foreign policy — one in which Israel and Taiwan land at the top of the list of U.S. priorities; Ukraine, which for more than a year has struggled against a Russian invasion, does not.

No decision has more highlighted Heritage’s evolution than its lobbying last year against proposed supplemental aid packages to Ukraine, a position in line with the growing isolationist wing of the Republican Party. That effort prompted an exodus of some of the foundation’s foreign policy staff.

It’s a view that echoed through the speeches of some of Heritage’s star speakers, Sens. J.D. Vance (R-OH), Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, at its annual conference last week, and is shared by other Heritage speakers, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, although neither addressed the issue in remarks.

Roberts described Heritage’s grand strategy for foreign policy as “what we call the third way… which is to say neither interventionism nor isolationism.” The strategy aligns with the populist national conservative movement, which promotes a more isolationist foreign policy coupled with protectionist trade measures. Roberts has described Heritage as part of this movement, with which Vance and Hawley are also aligned.

The current approach, Roberts said, stems from “recognizing that America is a lot weaker 40 years after Reagan’s presidency. It’s weaker financially, it’s weaker socially and culturally, every branch of the services has a very difficult time not just in recruiting, but in retaining.”

Roberts argues that the current policy remains consistent with Reaganite values. “We hope that we can help change [the current situation] by saying, ‘We believe in peace through strength, we want a very strong, robust American military,” he said, “but we have to be a heck of a lot more selective and just and constitutional when we decide to deploy the people’s resources.’”

Hawley surmised that the U.S. — due to financial losses to China and domestic social and cultural degradation, which he attributed to “cultural Marxists” who “run the Democrat Party… [and] the Biden administration” — is no longer capable of being a “global hegemon” or maintaining its large-scale military footprint in Europe and the Middle East.

“The whole of our policy… ought to be oriented right now at home and abroad toward protecting the family, protecting our neighborhoods, protecting our churches and strengthening our country,” he said. “When it comes to our interests abroad, we have got to rigorously focus on countering China, our biggest threat, and do less elsewhere around the world.”

Although the prime focus for Heritage and its keynote speakers was on shifting resources toward Taiwan and away from Ukraine, Roberts emphasized that Israel remains a key interest — and another example of why the U.S. needs to conserve the resources being sent to help Kyiv fend off the Russian invasion.

The Heritage president classified Israel as “near the top of the scale” or potentially “at the very top” of vital U.S. interests because it is among the U.S.’ most “consistent all[ies] in world politics,” “geopolitically important for those of us who appreciate the shared [Judeo-Christian] heritage we have” and because the U.S. and Israel share the same existential enemies.

While Roberts said that Heritage does support Ukraine, he argued it ultimately isn’t enough of a priority to merit the aid it’s receiving, in comparison to partners such as Israel, the United Kingdom, Taiwan and India.

Heritage — perennially a major influence in U.S. foreign policy — could be poised to have an even greater sway in shaping the policy of the next Republican administration. It’s coordinating the 2025 Presidential Transition Project, a partnership among dozens of right-leaning organizations that seeks to establish a policy platform and lists of potential staff for any future Republican president.

Iran received scant attention at the conference — at odds with the level of concern many in the GOP’s more traditional foreign policy wing hold about the regime in Tehran. But Roberts pointed to the potential threat from the Islamic republic as an additional reason the U.S. needs to cut off Ukraine, placing it alongside China as one of “our biggest enemies.”

“This is a pie and these military resources are not infinite, and we have to be able to keep some of them in case the Iranians become an even bigger issue than they are,” he said. “I would actually say Iran is a much bigger threat to us than Russia.”

Roberts also warned that some isolationists in the GOP are beginning to question why the U.S. needs to continue to fund the comparatively well-resourced and militarily capable Israel. He said that support for Ukraine makes it “harder to convince, to persuade those friends on the political right that in fact, Israel is a different case.” 

Traditional Republican foreign policy wisdom dictates that standing firm with Ukraine will send a deterrent message to the U.S.’ other foes, such as Beijing and Tehran, deter a leading U.S. rival and paint a red line against war crimes and human rights abuses. Many conservatives have applied a similar argument to the U.S.’ Afghanistan pullout, which they say emboldened Russia and Iran. Polling has found the majority of Americans continue to support Ukraine, although support is shrinking among Republicans.

Heritage’s allies offer a different message.

“The unfortunate fact is [Vladimir] Putin and Xi [Jinping], they don’t care about our chest thumping, they don’t care about what we say,” Vance argued. “They care about whether we can make enough bullets to fight the war that we may have to fight. That is all that matters… We cannot do that unless we get out and stop the focus on Ukraine. We have to focus on China, because that’s where the real enemy is.”

And it’s not just the Heritage Foundation leadership that’s onboard with its evolving foreign policy vision.

At a black-tie gala at the conclusion of last week’s conference, a clip of comments from Fox News host Tucker Carlson claiming that U.S. support for Ukraine would pull it into “World War III” against both Russia and China, prompted scattered applause from the audience.

And Carlson, who helps shape GOP thinking with his widely watched Fox News show, used his keynote address to promulgate his criticism of Ukraine, framing skepticism of aid to the war-ravaged country as brave and righteous.

“You look with disdain and sadness as you see people you know become quislings, you see them as cowards, you see them going along with the new new thing, which is clearly a poisonous thing, a silly thing. Saying things you know they don’t believe because they want to keep their jobs,” Carlson said. “Through George Floyd and COVID and Ukraine… You’re so disappointed in people.”

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